After a series of embarrassing scandals, WeHo eliminates council deputies

WeHo eliminates council deputies after infighting, accusations of eavesdropping and sexual harassment claims

The West Hollywood City Council has voted to eliminate a controversial deputy system that spawned high salaries, political infighting and embarrassing scandals involving allegations of office spying and sexual misconduct.

The council voted this week to do away with its current system, in which each of the five part-time elected officials had his or her own full-time deputy.

The deputies were paid between $99,838 and $137,487, received full benefits and even formed their own five-person union, the West Hollywood Council Deputies Assn., which sometimes took positions on items pending before the City Council. Several city officials told The Times that ongoing feuds among deputies sometimes made staff meetings difficult.

The deputies will be replaced by a team of city employees, who will provide services for all of the council members -- including scheduling, legislative support and constituent outreach — and ultimately answer to the city manager.

Critics of the council deputy system have said the council aides did not have much direct supervision because they answered to both the city manager and their individual council members, who have other jobs and typically are not at City Hall during the day.

The deputy system was eliminated Tuesday after the council voted 4-1 Monday to end it.

Because of changes in the council’s membership this year — including two elections and the stepping down of longtime Councilwoman Abbe Land — there are only two full-time deputies: Councilman John Duran’s deputy Ian Owens and Councilman John D’Amico’s deputy Michelle Rex.

Reforming the deputy system was a major issue in both the city election in March and a special election in June.

The atmosphere at City Hall grew toxic in January after Owens was suspended with pay from his job amid accusations that he bugged the office of Fran Solomon, the deputy to Councilman John Heilman.

Owens suspected that Solomon was soliciting campaign contributions for her boss, who was running for reelection, on city time. Owens sent snippets from her office telephone conversations to numerous email accounts in the city, including those of reporters. He said he went public with his allegations only after being ignored by Duran, whom he claimed was upset with him because Owens had spurned his sexual advances.

Owens returned to his position in March. Last month, Owens sued the city and Duran, alleging he was wrongfully punished for being a “whistle-blower” and that he was sexually harassed.

According to the lawsuit, Duran and Owens met in April 2012 via Grindr, a smartphone dating app for gay and bisexual men. The men had sex the first night they met in person, and Duran offered Owens the council deputy position three months later, the suit states.

In the lawsuit, Owens says Duran made sexual advances or sexually suggestive comments toward him "well over 100 times," and "on average, about once or twice a week."

Duran has acknowledged that he and Owens were sexually intimate and that they met through Grindr. He said they became good friends and that he hired Owens because having a degree in finance and experience in hotel development and real estate made him well-qualified for the job.

In an email to the Times last month, Duran said the sexual harassment claim “is meant deflect attention away from [Owens’] own misconduct.”

In a letter sent to council members last week, attorney Aanand Ghods-Mehtani, speaking on behalf of Owens and Rex, said that eliminating the council deputy system appeared “designed to unlawfully retaliate against” Owens and Rex. Both, he said, have made serious accusations against the city.

According to the attorney, Rex has vocally supported Owens’ claims that Solomon illegally solicited campaign funds. Rex has claimed, per the attorney, that when Solomon found out about this support, Solomon called Rex names and spit at her.

The city plans to have an external hiring process, and the new structure will take about six months to implement, said city spokeswoman Lisa Belsanti. The current deputies have the option to remain employed with the city for 45 days, she said. 

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